Friday, December 28, 2012

Utah - Roots

What Tara is to Scarlett O'Hara, Huntsville is to my dad's family.  The little brick house where my grandmother was raised remains in the family and has become a sort of spiritual home-base for her children and grandchildren.  My grandfather currently lives in the house (alone, since Granny's passing a few years ago) and my aunt lives next door in the house where my family lived when I was 9 yrs old.  As my family converges to celebrate my granfather's 90th birthday this week, Huntsville was the natural gathering place.  There are kids and suitcases everywhere, a roaring fire on the hearth, and a kitchen full of cookies, chocolates and pots of chili.

Huntsville is a tiny town in the mountains of northing Utah -- population 618.  This morning I went out for a run through the snowy streets.  It was great to stretch my legs, relive memories, and see the place (at least, one of the places) where I'm "from."
Granny's house. 
Built in 1928.  Granny moved here when she was 4 yrs old.

Posts delineate the driveway and facilitate plowing during big snowstorms.

The West House (next door to Granny's house).
I lived here when I was in Fourth Grade.

The Angus McKay House (a.k.a. the Rock House)
Angus was Granny's great-grandfather. Granny was born here.

The David O. McKay House.
Next door to the Rock House.  David was married to Angus's sister.

So, two things of note regarding the McKay houses:

First, politics:  When Utah tried to join the United States, it faced two obstacles:  polygamy and political parties.  The polygamy problem was solved when the Mormon church banned the practice.  The political problem was solved when the territorial government went through every community and designated every other house as Republican or Democrat.  The David McKay house was designated Republican (and remains so to this day), and the Angus McKay house was designated Democrat (and remained staunchly so until my parents' generation -- McKay ancestors rolled over in their graves when my parents put up Reagan posters in the 1980s...).

Second, family bloodlines.  I always thought that David and Angus were related and that we were all part of one big McKay clan.  Turns out not.  David and Angus just happened to have the same last name -- the only relation is by marriage!  So my link to Mormon royalty (David McKay was the prophet and president of the church in the mid-20th Century) is more attenuated than I'd originally supposed.

Pineview Reservoir under snow and ice.

Farms and fences and lake in the distance

First Street and the Library
(as seen from the driveway of the West House)

See the elementary school?  Neither do I. 
When I lived here, the school sas in this field across the street from the West House. 
It has since been torn down.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Utah/Idaho - Over the river and through the woods

Once upon a time there was a boy (hint: it's me!) who grew up in the mountains and liked snow and had no idea that the continental breakfasts served by Comfort Inn were not delicious.  Then that boy grew up and moved to the Big City and got corrupted by the Michelin Guide and sometimes wore nice leather driving moccasins.  One day (hint: this happened yesterday), that boy found himself standing in a couple inches of snowy sludge while wearing said driving moccasins, scraping snow off his car and feeling deeply wronged by both the wetness of his feet and the absence of anything edible on offer at the Comfort Inn's continental breakfast.  It was a dark and dismal moment.  "Dang it," thought the boy, "I've become high maintenance."
The wilds of southern Idaho
A few minutes later, the boy was riding with his parents en route to Pocatello, Idaho, to visit his aged grandmother.  His padre leaned back and said, "We're going to take Grandma to lunch, and you're in charge of picking the restaurant."  No problem, thought the boy naively.  Then he ran a search on Yelp for Pocatello and about died.  In no correct version of the universe should Wendy's show up in the top ten restaurants for a town.  So he called his sister, who had lived in Pocatello a few years ago, to see if she had any recommendations.  Her response:  "There are no good restaurants in Pocatello!  Why do you think we were so eager to move away from that hole?"  Crap.
But high maintenance is not the same as easily beaten, so our hero persevered in his search and found a place that risked being good.  Portneuf Valley Brewing had a decent menu, a bunch of positive reviews, and a reputation for good live music.  He took it as a good sign that his Grandmother had never heard of it.  

Turns out, it was pretty good.  I ordered a pizza and was pleased with the freshness of the ingredients and the quality of the crust.  Nice work, Pocatello.  Way to exceed expectations.


As for the grandmotherly visit, it was great.  I hadn't seen her for years and had never been to her place in Pocatello.  She felt well and so was uncharacteristically cheerful and lively.  We talked about grandchildren, obituaries, opera and ballet.  My favorite comments:

"You look much better than last time I saw you.  You were so skinny and tired looking!"

[Upon learning that I have seasons tickets to the modern dance series instead of ballet]  "Well, that would be the absolute LAST thing I would EVER be interested in seeing."  [Small gagging noises]

"I think you would actually really like living in Pocatello.  There are so many international restaurants here!  There's a great Italian place just down the road."


We ended our visit in time to be on the road before night fell and the freezing (or, rather, more freezing) temperatures made the roads treacherous.  What southern Idaho lacks in cosmopolitan attractions, it makes up in impressive sunsets.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Denver - Christmas Spider

Getting out of Denver was kind of an ordeal.

My flight was supposed to leave at 8:00am, but when I tried to check in I learned that it had been canceled (surprise!).  "Not to worry," said the agent comfortingly, "we've already rebooked you for the first flight out on Friday morning."  Her benevolent smile evaporated when I reminded her that this was Wednesday morning, and that suggested that two days in the airport wasn't acceptable. 

Thus began a morning of handwringing and anxiety for the United agents as they called around to other airlines and tried to figure out how to operate their printer.  They never succeeded in the latter endeavor, so finally they sent me over to the Delta line with a handwritten note along the lines of "Hi Delta, Please let this guy on your plane.  Love and kisses, United."

The line at Delta was longer than at United.  It would have been a boring wait if I hadn't been so intrigued by the fact that Alaskans apparently celebrate Christmas with giant spiders.
Yes, kids, if you're really good this year, a giant spider will crawl out of our chimney!

Nine hours later, I finally boarded the plane to Salt Lake.  After another hour's delay on the runway, we were on our way.  Farewell, Denver!


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Denver - Christmas Day

I awoke with a start in the wee hours of the morning -- I had forgotten that there was a videoconference scheduled in my bedroom for exactly that time, and if I didn't hurry, I would be caught sleeping in bed when everyone else dialed in to resume negotiations.  I scrambled out into the living room and sat down on a sofa, wondering how long the call would last before I could go back to bed. 

Then I realized that it was absurd for there to be a conference call at 3:00am on Christmas Day in Amanda's guest room.  So I went back to bed.

Then at 7:00am I awoke with a start and opened my laptop to start working on an issues list for the contracts that we would be negotiating today.  I figured it was a crappy way to start one's Christmas, by working, but at least this way I might be done by the time Amanda woke up.  Funny thing, though, how the email chain that I'd received during the night instructing me to create the issues list didn't seem to be in my inbox anymore.

That's because I'd dreamt it.  So I went back to bed.  Again.  And resolved that, regardless of any assignments (real or imagined) that I might receive today, I simply wasn't going to work on them.

Because it was Christmas! 

After my second work misfire, I couldn't fall asleep agin -- and since it was a glorious, sunny day with pristine new-fallen snow everywhere, I decided to get up.  I lit a fire in the living room and settled down on the sofa with my copy of Les Miserables.  At 530 pages into the first volume, Jean Valjean was finally on the verge of rescuing Cosette from the Thenardiers. 

Eventually Amanda got up and surprised me with a stocking full of wonderful little goodies that "Santa" had left the night before.  Then we made breakfast.  Amanda made quiche with spinach, bacon and cheddar cheese . . .


while I made some of Lady's French toast . . .


all of which was delicious.


By the time we had cleaned up breakfast, it was time for today's main event:  Les Miserables!

Despite my not having finished the book, the movie opened today in theaters, and we had tickets to see it this afternoon.  We waited in line, jostled with folks who didn't understand the concepts of lines, and ended up with excellent seats in the giant auditorium. 

The movie was essentially the Broadway musical, but with a few cuts here and some expansions there.  It was inevitably over-the-top and grandiose, but it's a story that calls for nothing less -- and it was thrilling to see what the movie form could do that the stage version couldn't.  By and large the actors (with the exception of Russell Crowe) were strong singers and well cast, and the storytelling swift and effective.  I missed the depth of the novel (though not the hundreds of pages spent on irrelevant side notes), but the tale was still powerful enough to render me an emotional wreck from the time Jean Valjean sang "Bring Him Home" until the end.

Now we're back at home, winding down the day.  I fly out to Utah tomorrow for the next leg of holiday visits, so in a minute I will need to go pack my bags.  It has been a quick trip, but very pleasant and much appreciated.  Merry Christmas!

Denver - White Christmas

It's rare that the weather cooperates and does exactly what it should at the moment it should be done.  But last night that happened! 

After a relaxed and uneventful Christmas Eve Day, Amanda and I went downtown for dinner at a new restaurant called Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar.  We ordered oysters and soup and hearty winter fare to warm us against the plummeting temperatures outside.
Kumamoto oysters from California, and
Bar Cats oysters from Chesapeake Bay
Roast beets, arugula, herbs, candied walnuts, cured foie gras
Lamb shank, raosted root vegetables, fried goat cheese & mint fritter, lamb jus
Red wine poached pears, almond custard, rosemary crème fraîche

Following dinner, we walked across the street to see the closing night performance of Irving Berlin's White Christmas at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

If you're familiar with the play (or the Bing Crosby movie it's based on), you'll know that its most famous song is "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" and that the story ends happily when it finally snows on Christmas Eve. 
As we left the theatre, we were delighted to see that, as if on cue, it was snowing outside as it had been on stage -- we would have our very own white Christmas!

Denver - Tableau vivant

It was late on Christmas Eve when Amanda and I posted our tableau vivant Nativity scene.  We considered taking a few minutes to wish our readers Merry Christmas and offer some cheery words about the birth of Our Lord, but we were sleepy and decided to let the image speak for itself.

Nativity Scene Edited 2

Then we remembered all of our art history classes and realized that, while a picture may speak for itself, it's hard to predict what it will say.  I mean, what if the Christmas motif was just a vehicle or a symbol for some other message?  Like, we're having a child out of wedlock without even violating the law of chastity!  Or, we're moving to Egypt!  Or, look how many scarves Amanda has!

Hehehe.  We decided to let it simmer overnight. 

Truth is, none of those messages was intended (except maybe the last one -- girl has a gazillion scarves) -- our tableau is just a straightforward representation of the Savior's birth as it would have looked if someone like, say, Wes Anderson had been art director instead of Saint Luke.

It's a powerful composition, one that can tell us a lot about the meaning of life and spirituality and the stuff in Amanda's apartment.  Let's take the elements one by one:

First, you have the new father, who, at great risk to life and limb, has just accomplished his first swaddling and is now wondering, "Is it bad for my eternal salvation if I am allergic to the Baby Jesus?"







(It's worth observing, too, how Joseph's scarf is wrapped in the traditional Moroccan manner, which suggests that, in addition to being a humble carpenter, he also has traveled widely during his university years.)

Then there is the Virgin Mary, who is just happy they made it to the stable in time -- and who also has no intention of letting Joseph out of swaddling duty, "allergies" or no.


To Mary's left (our right) stand the three wise men.  One of them looks a lot like William Shakespeare, but if you look closely, you can see that the resemblance is only in the head.  The other one actually is Sancho Panza -- apparently he was kind of a big deal in the Middle East before he moved to Spain and started hanging out with Don Quixote.  As for the black king (who is black because one of the kings is always black), nobody knows what is name is or where he came from -- based on skin color, some historians posit that he is from Africa, but that theory fails to account for his obviously Asian elephant.


Swinging around the front of the table, we encounter a black rectangle that, from the rear, looks like an iPhone.  But that would be anachronistic, because iPhones didn't exist at the time of Our Lord and Savior's birth.  Instead, it's a digital portal that allows Joseph and Mary to see Jeanette-Isabella, who went to get a torch and, in so doing, became the first Olympic torchbearer in history.

Although Jeanette-Isabella's important contribution is still
celebrated in song, she is often omitted from the traditional nativity scene. 
I asume that is due to a sense of disappointment among the apostles
for her choosing a pony-tail instead of a sleeker up-do.
On the other side of the stable, we find the famous shepherds who were keeping watch with their flocks by night. Or, more accurately, two shepherdesses who belong to a latino-russian women's cooperative that raises miniature llamas for their wool.  The Latina shepherdess is clearly enjoying Christ's birth (her family has been Catholic for generations), but her Russian colleague seems to be more focused on the babe in the mirror than the Heavenly Babe.  (She later came to grief when she forgot to fill up on oil before the wedding feast.) 

Note the ever-attentive sheepcat keeping an eye on
the one straying from the ninety-and-nine.
Hovering over the entire scene is an angel, which symbolizes the actual angel who announced the birth of Christ to the shepherdesses.

Don't be thrown by its resemblance to a wooden bird -- some angels
take on alternate identities for security reasons
As we consider each of these elements that make up one of the most iconic gatherings of all time, we should reflect on the value of family and the blessings that we receive daily from on high.  And we should recognize that it all could have turned out very differently.  For example, Joseph could have had a seizure and died from his baby allergies, leaving Mary to raise her child alone . . .

Or, the angel with the lilly could have made the Annunciation to the wrong half of the couple, resulting in an even stranger single-parent situation (because what woman would marry a pregnant man, even if the conception was immaculate?) . . .


Or, we could have ended up at the wrong stable altogether and given a lot of unwanted attention to a couple struggling to cope with the fact that they had just given birth to a demon cat.

But again, none of those things happened -- and for that we are all eternally grateful.  So, joy to the world, and to all a good night.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Denver - Productive and leisurely

It's a good thing I went to church last Sunday and heard the Christmas message then -- because that sure didn't happen today.  Instead, I slept until 10am (nine hours of sleep! in a row!) and spent the rest of the day being moderately productive and 100% on holiday -- in both senses of the word:  I relished the feeling of being on vacation and was finally able to get into the spirit of the Christmas holiday.

The productive part came early, in the form of Christmas shopping.  Amanda needed to pick up one last gift from this quirky store full of ecclectic oddities and hipsters with facial hair.  While Amanda made her purchase, I perused the shelves and came away with a Peruvian butterfly and a cloisonne vase.  As the clerk wrapped the butterfly for me, he assured me that it came from a no-kill butterfly ranch in Peru that was run by a father and son team -- the butterfly had therefor lived a full and happy life and wasn't pinned to the glass until after it had died in its bed surrounded by loved ones.  He also threw a handful of shiny crystal fragments into the box ("for effect") before closing it.  I stifled a laugh and looked around to see if the Portlandia camera crew was hiding in the corner.

Morpho didius

And, before you start judging me for going Christmas shopping and buying things for myself, I will also say that I may or may not have gone to other stores and purchased other items for other people.  Either way, we ended up at the Tattered Cover book store, where we sat and read and soaked in the wonderful atmosphere of a good independent book store. 
Moi, reading How To Be a Woman
(which, lest you wonder, was a sort of feminist memoir/essay,
 as opposed to an actual "how to" guide)
Amanda opted for the new Lemony Snicket book
From the bookstore, we wandered over to Cholon, a nearby restaurant where we had dinner reservations.  The service was fantastic and the food, which seemed to belong in the Asian/Southwestern fusion style, was good -- and by "good" I mean perfectly adequate but not extraordinary.  My favorite part was the sauces; my least favorite part was how the menu didn't really give us a good sense of how big each plate would be -- we ended up over-ordering.
Giant rice cake with salsa
Pork-belly potstickers with ginger mustard
Duck spring rolls with cilantro yogurt

Celery root soup with miso butterscotch, Asian pear and green apples

Seared salmon with miso-buttered corn and shitake vinaigrette

Sauteed brussels sprouts with ground pork and mint

Yellow curry mussels with pork belly and French fries
With happy tummies full of food, we walked over to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts to see the Nutcracker.  It has been years since the last time I'd seen the Nutcracker performed live, and I had forgotten just how much fun it was.  All the beauty of ballet, plus the fun and energy of the holidays -- there's nothing better than seeing all those little girls in the audience dressed up in their best dresses, clearly wishing that they could be Clara!

For normal people, the night would have ended after the ballet.  But no -- in true AJW/JJD style, we decided to make it a double-header tonight:  After the ballet, we went to a nearby cinema and saw The Hobbit in 3D.  Because Wizards and dwarves are kind of Christmasy, right?